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Chapter 3

One evening Carlos, after a silence of distress, had said, "There's
nothing else for it. When the crisis comes, you must carry her off from
this unhappiness and misery that hangs over her head. You must take her
out of Cuba; there is no safety for her here."

This took my breath away. "But where are we to go, Carlos?" I asked,
bending over him.

"To--to England," he whispered.

He was utterly worn out that evening by all the perplexities of his
death-bed. He made a great effort and murmured a few words more--about
the Spanish ambassador in London being a near relation of the Riegos;
then he gave it up and lay still under my amazed eyes. The nun was
approaching, alarmed, from the shadows. Father Antonio, gazing sadly
upon his beloved penitent, signed me to withdraw.

Castro had not gone away yet; he greeted me in low tones outside the big
door.

"Señor," he went on, "I make my report usually to his Señoria Don
Carlos; only I have not been admitted to-day into his rooms at all. But
what I have to say is for your ear, also. There has arrived a friar from
a Havana convent amongst the _Lugarenos_ of the bay. I have known him
come like this before."

I remembered that in the morning, while dressing, I had glanced out
of the narrow outside window of my room, and had seen a brown, mounted
figure passing on the sands. Its sandalled feet dangled against the
flanks of a powerful mule.

Castro shook his head. "Malediction on his green eyes! He baptizes the
offspring of this vermin sometimes, and sits for hours in the shade
before the door of Domingo's posada telling his beads as piously as a
devil that had turned monk for the greater undoing of us Christians.
These women crowd there to kiss his oily paw. What else they------
_Basta!_ Only I wanted to tell you, Señor, that this evening (I just
come from taking a _pasear_ that way) there is much talk in the villages
of an evil-intentioned heretic that has introduced himself into this our
town; of an _Inglez_ hungry for men to hang--of you, in short."

The moon, far advanced in its first quarter, threw an ashen, bluish
light upon one-half of the courtyard; and the straight shadow upon the
other seemed to lie at the foot of the columns, black as a broad stroke
of Indian ink.

"And what do you think of it, Castro?" I asked.

"I think that Domingo has his orders. Manuel has made a song already.
And do you know its burden, Señor? Killing is its burden. I would the
devil had all these _Improvisadores_. They gape round him while he
twangs and screeches, the wind-bag! And he knows what words to sing to
them, too. He has talent. _Maladetta!_"

"Well, and what do you advise?"

"I advise the senor to keep, now, within the Casa. No songs can give
that vermin the audacity to seek the senor here. The gate remains
barred; the firearms are always loaded; and Cesar is a sagacious
African. But methinks this moon would fall out of the heaven first
before they would dare.... Keep to the Casa, I say--I, Tomas Castro."

He flung the corner of his cloak over his left shoulder, and preceded me
to the door of my room; then, after a "God guard you, Señor," continued
along the colonnade. Before I had shut my door it occurred to me that
he was going on towards the part of the gallery on which Seraphina's
apartments opened. Why? What could he want there?

I am not so much ashamed of my sudden suspicion of him--one did not know
whom to trust--but I am a little ashamed to confess that, kicking off my
shoes, I crept out instantly to spy upon him.

This part of the house was dark in the inky flood of shadow; and before
I had come to a recess in the wall, I heard the discreet scratching of a
finger-nail on a door. A streak of light darted and disappeared, like a
signal for the murmurs of two voices.

I recognized the woman's at once. It belonged to one of Seraphina's
maids, a pretty little quadroon--a favourite of hers--called La Chica.
She had slipped out, and her twitter-like whispering reached me in the
still solemnity of the quadrangle. She addressed Castro as "His Worship"
at every second word, for the saturnine little man, in his unbrushed
cloak and battered hat, was immensely respected by the household. Had he
not been sent to Europe to fetch Don Carlos? He was in the confidence of
the masters--their humble friend. The little tire-woman twittered of her
mistress. The senorita had been most anxious all day--ever since she had
heard the friar had come. Castro muttered:

"Tell the Excellency that her orders have been obeyed. The English
_caballero_ has been warned. I have been sleepless in my watchfulness
over the guest of the house, as the senorita has desired--for the honour
of the Riegos. Let her set her mind at ease."

The girl then whispered to him with great animation. Did not his worship
think that it was the senorita's heart which was not at ease?

Then the quadrangle became dumb in its immobility, half sheen, half
night, with its arcades, the soothing plash of water, with its expiring
lights, in a suggestion of Castilian severity, enveloped by the exotic
softness of the air.

"What folly!" uttered Castro's sombre voice. "You women do not mind how
many corpses come into your imaginings of love. The mere whisper of such
a thing------"

She murmured swiftly. He interrupted her.

"Thine eyes, La Chica--thine eyes see only the silliness of thine own
heart. Think of thine own lovers, _nina. Por Dios!_"--he changed to a
tone of severe appreciation--"thy foolish face looks well by moonlight."

I believe he was chucking her gravely under the chin. I heard her
soft, gratified cooing in answer to the compliment; the streak of light
flashed on the polished shaft of a pillar; and Castro went on, going
round to the staircase, evidently so as not to pass again before my open
door.

I forgot to shut it. I did not stop until I was in the middle of
my room; and then I stood still for a long time in a self-forgetful
ecstasy, while the many wax candles of the high candelabrum burned
without a flicker in a rich cluster of flames, as if lighted to throw
the splendour of a celebration upon the pageant of my thoughts.

For the honour of the Riegos!

I came to myself. Well, it was sweet to be the object of her anxiety and
care, even on these terms--on any terms. And I felt a sort of profound,
inexpressible, grateful emotion, as though no one, never, on no day, on
no occasion, had taken thought of me before.

I should not be able to sleep. I went to the window, and leaned my
forehead on the iron bar. There was no glass; the heavy shutter was
thrown open; and, under the faint crescent of the moon I saw a small
part of the beach, very white, the long streak of light lying mistily
on the bay, and two black shapes, cloaked, moving and stopping all of a
piece like pillars, their immensely long shadows running away from their
feet, with the points of the hats touching the wall of the Casa Riego.
Another, a shorter, thicker shape, appeared, walking with dignity. It
was Castro. The other two had a movement of recoil, then took off their
hats.

"_Buenas noches, caballeros_," his voice said, with grim politeness.
"You are out late."

"So is your worship. _Vaya, Señor, con Dios_. We are taking the air."

They walked away, while Castro remained looking after them. But I,
from my elevation, noticed that they had suddenly crouched behind some
scrubby bushes growing on the edge of the sand. Then Castro, too, passed
out of my sight in the opposite direction, muttering angrily.

I forgot them all. Everything on earth was still, and I seemed to be
looking through a casement out of an enchanted castle standing in the
dreamland of romance. I breathed out the name of Seraphina into the
moonlight in an increasing transport. "Seraphina! Seraphina! Seraphina!"
The repeated beauty of the sound intoxicated me. "Seraphina!" I cried
aloud, and stopped, astounded at myself. And the moonlight of romance
seemed to whisper spitefully from below:

"Death to the traitor! Vengeance for our brothers dead on the English
gallows!" "Come away, Manuel."

"No. I am an artist. It is necessary for my soul..."

"Be quiet!"

Their hissing ascended along the wall from under the window. The two
_Lugarenos_ had stolen in unnoticed by me. There was a stifled metallic
ringing, as of a guitar carried under a cloak.

"Vengeance on the heretic _Inglez!_"

"Come away! They may suddenly open the gate and fall upon us with
sticks."

"My gentle spirit is roused to the accomplishment of great things.
I feel in me a valiance, an inspiration. I am no vulgar seller of
_aguardiente_, like Domingo. I was born to be the _capataz_ of the
_Lugarenos_."

"We shall be set upon and beaten, oh, thou Manuel. Come away!"

There were no footsteps, only a noiseless flitting of two shadows, and a
distant voice crying:

"Woe, woe, woe to the traitor!"

I had not needed Castro's warning to understand the meaning of this.
O'Brien was setting his power to work, only this Manuel's restless
vanity had taught me exactly how the thing was to be done. The friar
had been exciting the minds of this rabble against me; awakening their
suspicions, their hatred, their fears.

I remained at the casement, lost in rather sombre reflections. I was now
a prisoner within the walls of the Casa. After all, it mattered little.
I did not want to go away unless I could carry off Seraphina with me.
What a dream! What an impossible dream! Alone, without friends, with no
place to go to, without means of going; without, by Heaven, the right of
even as much as speaking of it to her. Carlos--Carlos dreamed--a
dream of his dying hours. England was so far, the enemy so near;
and--Providence itself seemed to have forgotten me.

A sound of panting made me turn my head. Father Antonio was mopping his
brow in the doorway. Though a heavy man, he was noiseless of foot. A
wheezing would be heard along the dark galleries some time before his
black bulk approached you with a gliding motion. He had the outward
placidity of corpulent people, a natural artlessness of demeanour
which was amusing and attractive, and there was something shrewd in his
simplicity. Indeed, he must have displayed much tact and shrewdness to
have defeated all O'Brien's efforts to oust him from his position of
confessor to the household. What had helped him to hold his ground was
that, as he said to me once, "I, too, my son, am a legacy of that truly
pious and noble lady, the wife of Don Riego. I was made her spiritual
director soon after her marriage, and I may say that she showed more
discretion in the choice of her confessor than in that of her man of
affairs. But what would you have? The best of us, except for Divine
grace, is liable to err; and, poor woman, let us hope that, in her
blessed state, she is spared the knowledge of the iniquities going on
here below in the Casa."

He used to talk to me in that strain, coming in almost every evening
on his way from the sick room. He, too, had his own perplexities, which
made him wipe his forehead repeatedly; afterwards he used to spread his
red bandanna handkerchief over his knees.

He sympathized with Carlos, his beloved penitent, with Seraphina, his
dear daughter, whom he had baptized and instructed in the mysteries of
"our holy religion," and he allowed himself often to drop the remark
that his "illustrious spiritual son," Don Balthasar, after a stormy
life of which men knew only too much, had attained to a state of truly
childlike and God-fearing innocence--a sign, no doubt, of Heaven's
forgiveness for those excesses. He ended, always, by sighing heartily,
to sit with his gaze on the floor.

That night he came in silently, and after shutting the door with care,
took his habitual seat, a broad wooden armchair.

"How did your reverence leave Don Carlos?" I asked.

"Very low," he said. "The disease is making terrible ravages, and my
ministrations------I ought to be used to the sight of human misery,
but------" He raised his hands; a genuine emotion overpowered him; then,
uncovering his face to stare at me, "He is lost, Don Juan," he
exclaimed.

"Indeed, I fear we are about to lose him, your reverence," I said,
surprised at this display. It seemed inconceivable that he should have
been in doubt up to this very moment.

He rolled his eyes painfully. I was forgetting the infinite might of
God. Still, nothing short of a miracle------But what had we done to
deserve miracles?

"Where is the ancient piety of our forefathers which made Spain so
great?" he apostrophized the empty air, a little wildly, as if in
distraction. "No, Don Juan; even I, a true servant of our faith, am
conscious of not having had enough grace for my humble ministrations to
poor sailors and soldiers--men naturally inclined to sin, but simple.
And now--there are two great nobles, the fortune of a great house...."

I looked at him and wondered, for he was, in a manner, wringing his
hands, as if in immense distress.

"We are all thinking of that poor child--_mas que_, Don Juan, imagine
all that wealth devoted to the iniquitous purposes of that man. Her
happiness sacrificed."

"I cannot imagine this--I will not," I interrupted, so violently that he
hushed me with both hands uplifted.

"To these wild enterprises against your own country," he went on
vehemently, disregarding my exasperated and contemptuous laugh. "And she
herself, the _niña_ I have baptized her; I have instructed her; and a
more noble disposition, more naturally inclined to the virtues and
proprieties of her sex------But, Don Juan, she has pride, which
doubtless is a gift of God, too, but it is made a snare of by Satan,
the roaring lion, the thief of souls. And what if her feminine
rashness--women are rash, my son," he interjected with unction--"and her
pride were to lead her into--I am horrified at the thought--into an act
of mortal sin for which there is no repentance?"

"Enough!" I shouted at him.

"No repentance," he repeated, rising to his feet excitedly, and I stood
before him, my arms down my sides, with my fists clenched.

Why did the stupid priest come to talk like this to me, as if I had not
enough of my own unbearable thoughts?

He sat down and began to flourish his handkerchief. There was depicted
on his broad face--depicted simply and even touchingly--the inward
conflict of his benevolence and of his doubts.

"I observe your emotion, my son," he said. I must have been as pale
as death. And, after a pause, he meditated aloud, "And, after all, you
English are a reverent nation. You, a scion of the nobility, have been
brought up in deplorable rebellion against the authority of God on this
earth; but you are not a scoffer--not a scoffer. I, a humble
priest------But, after all, the Holy Father himself, in his inspired
wisdom------I have prayed to be enlightened...."

He spread the square of his damp handkerchief on his knees, and bowed
his head. I had regained command over myself, but I did not understand
in the least. I had passed from my exasperation into a careworn fatigue
of mind that was like utter darkness.

"After all," he said, looking up naively, "the business of us priests is
to save souls. It is a solemn time when death approaches. The affairs of
this world should be cast aside. And yet God surely does not mean us to
abandon the living to the mercy of the wicked."

A sadness came upon his face, his eyes; all the world seemed asleep. He
made an effort. "My son," he said with decision, "I call you to follow
me to the bedside of Don Carlos at this very hour of night. I, a humble
priest, the unworthy instrument of God's grace, call upon you to bring
him a peace which my ministrations cannot give. His time is near."

I rose up, startled by his solemnity, by the hint of hidden significance
in these words.

"Is he dying now?" I cried.

"He ought to detach his thoughts from this earth; and if there is no
other way------"

"What way? What am I expected to do?"

"My son, I had observed your emotion. We, the appointed confidants
of men's frailties, are quick to discern the signs of their innermost
feelings. Let me tell you that my cherished daughter in God, Señorita
Dona Seraphina Riego, is with Don Carlos, the virtual head of the
family, since his Excellency Don Balthasar is in a state of, I may say,
infantile innocence."

"What do you mean, father?" I faltered.

"She is waiting for you with him," he pronounced, looking up. And as his
solemnity seemed to have deprived me of my power to move, he added, with
his ordinary simplicity, "Why, my son, she is, I may say, not wholly
indifferent to your person."

I could not have dropped more suddenly into the chair had the good
_padre_ discharged a pistol into my breast. He went away; and when I
leapt up, I saw a young man in black velvet and white ruffles staring
at me out of the large mirror set frameless into the wall, like the
apparition of a Spanish ghost with my own English face.

When I ran out, the moon had sunk below the ridge of the roof; the whole
quadrangle of the Casa had turned black under the stars, with only a
yellow glimmer of light falling into the well of the court from the lamp
under the vaulted gateway. The form of the priest had gone out of sight,
and a far-away knocking, mingling with my footfalls, seemed to be part
of the tumult within my heart. Below, a voice at the gate challenged,
"Who goes there?" I ran on. Two tiny flames burned before Carlos' door
at the end of the long vista, and two of Seraphina's maids shrank away
from the great mahogany panels at my approach. The candlesticks trembled
askew in their hands; the wax guttered down, and the taller of the two
girls, with an uncovered long neck, gazed at me out of big sleepy
eyes in a sort of dumb wonder. The teeth of the plump little one--La
Chica--rattled violently like castanets. She moved aside with a
hysterical little laugh, and glanced upwards at me.

I stopped, as if I had intruded; of all the persons in the sick-room,
not one turned a head. The stillness of the lights, of things, of the
air, seemed to have passed into Seraphina's face. She stood with a stiff
carriage under the heavy hangings of the bed, looking very Spanish and
romantic in her short black skirt, a black lace shawl enveloping her
head, her shoulders, her arms, as low as the waist. Her bare feet,
thrust into high-heeled slippers, lent to her presence an air of flight,
as if she had run into that room in distress or fear. Carlos, sitting up
amongst the snowy pillows of eider-down at his back, was not speaking
to her. He had done; and the flush on his cheek, the eager lustre of
his eyes, gave him an appearance of animation, almost of joy, a sort of
consuming, flame-like brilliance. They were waiting for me. With all his
eagerness and air of life, all he could do was to lift his white hand an
inch or two off the silk coverlet that spread over his limbs smoothly,
like a vast crimson pall. There was something joyous and cruel in the
shimmer of this piece of colour, contrasted with the dead white of the
linen, the duskiness of the wasted face, the dark head with no visible
body, symbolically motionless. The confused shadows and the tarnished
splendour of emblazoned draperies, looped up high under the ceiling,
fell in heavy and unstirring folds right down to the polished floor,
that reflected the lights like a sheet of water, or rather like ice.

I felt it slippery under my feet. I, alone, had to move, in this
great chamber, with its festive patches of colour amongst the funereal
shadows, with the expectant, still figures of priest and nun, servants
of passionless eternity, as if immobilized and made mute by hostile
wonder before the perishable triumph of life and love. And only the
impatient tapping of the sick man's hand on the stiff silk of the
coverlet was heard.

It called to me. Seraphina's unstirring head was lighted strongly by a
two-branched sconce on the wall; and when I stood by her side, not even
the shadow of the eyelashes on her cheek trembled. Carlos' lips moved;
his voice was almost extinct; but for all his emaciation, the profundity
of his eyes, the sunken cheeks, the hollow temples, he remained
attractive, with the charm of his gallant and romantic temper worn away
to an almost unearthly fineness.

He was going to have his desire because, on the threshold of his
spiritual inheritance, he refused, or was unable, to turn his gaze away
from this world. Father Antonio's business was to save this soul; and
with a sort of simple and sacerdotal shrewdness, in which there was much
love for his most noble penitent, he would try to appease its trouble by
a romantic satisfaction. His voice, very grave and profound, addressed
me:

"Approach, my son--nearer. We trust the natural feelings of pity which
are implanted in every human breast, the nobility of your extraction,
the honour of your _hidalguidad_, and that inextinguishable courage
which, as by the unwearied mercy of God, distinguishes the sons of
your fortunate and unhappy nation." His bass voice, deepened in solemn
utterance, vibrated huskily. There was a rustic dignity in his uncouth
form, in his broad face, in the gesture of the raised hand. "You
shall promise to respect the dictates of our conscience, guided by the
authority of our faith; to defer to our scruples, and to the procedure
of our Church in matters which we believe touch the welfare of our
souls.... You promise?"

He waited. Carlos' eyes burned darkly on my face. What were they asking
of me? This was nothing. Of course I would respect her scruples--her
scruples--if my heart should break. I felt her living intensely by my
side; she could be brought no nearer to me by anything they could do, or
I could promise. She had already all the devotion of my love and youth,
the unreasoning and potent devotion, without a thought or hope of
reward. I was almost ashamed to pronounce the two words they expected.
"I promise."

And suddenly the meaning pervading this scene, something that was in my
mind already, and that I had hardly dared to look at till now, became
clear to me in its awful futility against the dangers, in all its remote
consequences. It was a betrothal. The priest--Carlos, too--must have
known that it had no binding power. To Carlos it was symbolic of his
wishes. Father Antonio was thinking of the papal dispensation. I was a
heretic. What if it were refused? But what was that risk to me, who had
never dared to hope? Moreover, they had brought her there, had persuaded
her; she had been influenced by her fears, impressed by Carlos. What
could she care for me? And I repeated:

"I promise. I promise, even at the cost of suffering and unhappiness,
never to demand anything from her against her conscience."

Carlos' voice sounded weak. "I answer for him, good father." Then
he seemed to wander in a whisper, which we two caught faintly, "He
resembles his sister, O Divine------"

And on this ghostly sigh, on this breath, with the feeble click of beads
in the nun's hands, a silence fell upon the room, vast as the stillness
of a world of unknown faiths, loves, beliefs, of silent illusions, of
unexpressed passions and secret motives that live in our unfathomable
hearts.

Seraphina had given me a quick glance--the first glance--which I had
rather felt than seen. Carlos made an effort, and, raising himself, put
her hand in mine.

Father Antonio, trying to pronounce a short allocution, broke down,
naïve in his emotion, as he had been in his dignity. I could at first
catch only the words, "Beloved child--Holy Father--poor priest...."
He had taken this upon himself; and he would attest the purity of our
intentions, the necessity of the case, the assent of the head of the
family, my excellent disposition. All the Englishmen had excellent
dispositions. He would, personally, go to the foot of the Holy See--on
his knees, if necessary. Meantime, a document--he should at once prepare
a justificative document. The archbishop, it is true, did not like him
on account of the calumnies of that man O'Brien. But there was, beyond
the seas, the supreme authority of the Church, unerring and inaccessible
to calumnies.

All that time Seraphina's hand was lying passive in my palm--warm,
soft, living; all the life, all the world, all the happiness, the only
desire--and I dared not close my grasp, afraid of the vanity of my
hopes, shrinking from the intense felicity in the audacious act.
Father Antonio--I must say the word--blubbered. He was now only a
tender-hearted, simple old man, nothing more.

"Before God now, Don Juan.... I am only a poor priest, but invested
with a sacred office, an enormous power. Tremble, Señor, it is a young
girl... I have loved her like my own; for, indeed, I have in baptism
given her the spiritual life. You owe her protection; it is for that,
before God, Señor------"

It was as if Carlos had swooned; his eyes were closed, his face like
a carving. But gradually the suggestion of a tender and ironic smile
appeared on his lips. With a slow effort he raised his arm and his
eyelids, in an appeal of all his weariness for my ear. I made a movement
to stoop over him, and the floor, the great bed, the whole room, seemed
to heave and sway. I felt a slight, a fleeting pressure of Seraphina's
hand before it slipped out of mine; I thought, in the beating rush of
blood to my temples, that I was going mad.

He had thrown his arm over my neck; there was the calming austerity of
death on his lips, that just touched my ear and departed, together with
the far-away sound of the words, losing themselves in the remoteness of
another world:

"Like an Englishman, Juan."

"On my honour, Carlos."

His arm, releasing my neck, fell stretched out on the coverlet. Father
Antonio had mastered his emotion; with the trail of undried tears on
his face, he had become a priest again, exalted above the reach of his
earthly sorrow by the august concern of his sacerdocy.

"Don Carlos, my son, is your mind at ease, now?"

Carlos closed his eyes slowly.

"Then turn all your thoughts to heaven." Father Antonio's bass voice
rose, aloud, with an extraordinary authority. "You have done with the
earth."

The arm of the nun touched the cords of the curtains» and the massive
folds shook and fell expanded, hiding from us the priest and the
penitent.


Joseph Conrad

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